In my previous post on empathy and RPGs, I mentioned that I like to play different types of characters in games in order to try out different roles, and even different value systems. Right now I’m playing Fallout 4 (more on that game next post!), and I have three characters. One is basically a dumb brute named…Brutus (yeah, it’s not very original! If I get a chance to name pets in a game, they get names like Doggy, Piggy, or Eagly). He does whatever he is told and hits people with his fists and hammers and such. The two other characters are more interesting to me. One is a typical hero, out to save the world. The other is an egoist. She’s not evil, but she’s definitely selfish. She’s somewhere between Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes. She’ll help you, but she wants to know what she’ll get out of it. Then she’ll ask for more.
The problem is that while I find the egoist character interesting, I also have a hard time staying in character with her. I want to help out the people of the wasteland, and they are so desperate and poor that asking them for more money seems heartless. I do it because the character would do it, but I find her choice distasteful.
I was discussing this problem on Facebook, where my brother noted that he has the same problem. He can play a rogue character and steal things, but he still won’t sacrifice groups of people for his own ends. Another friend is playing through Knights of the Old Republic 1 (not to be confused with the newer MMORPG!). He’s trying to play the Dark Side, a choice that the game allows you to make. That game is brutal, though. To be “dark” leads you to do some pretty evil things. I’ve tried it, and I increasingly disliked my character. I didn’t even finish the Dark Side of that game. It was too troubling.
What does this mean? I think it reflects the empathy issues discussed in my previous post (here). A correlation between roleplaying and empathy could go in either direction. Perhaps roleplaying games teach us to be more empathetic toward others, or perhaps empathetic people are more drawn to the way roleplaying games allow us to visit another person’s life (fictional though it may be!). But some of us carry our empathy with us. We might enjoy seeing what a game has to offer in the way of moral choices, but that doesn’t make it easier to intentionally do something bad.
Of course, it’s just a game! We aren’t really sacrificing innocent people for our own ends. But I think there are some connections. In an article called “Monstrous Thoughts and the Moral Identity Thesis” Stephanie Patridge argues that the way that we think about even fictional characters in books, movies, and video games tells us something about our moral identities. Building on work by Berys Gaut, Patridge suggests that our intentionality toward fictional characters and situations can be evaluated morally, thus telling us something about our own ethics.
Presumably, this is only true if you actually identify with the fictional situation in some way, enough to actually have intentionality. So, if you are playing a bullet-hell SHMUP (shoot-em up!) in order to get a high score, you aren’t likely identifying with your onscreen avatar at all, much less with the hordes of ships/aliens/carebears/whatever that you are destroying. However, in a more immersive game like Fallout, many of us do immerse ourselves in the game in some way. The character we are playing has a story and motives, and so do the various NPCs we meet. As a result, how we act in the game and how we feel about our actions could tell us something about ourselves morally.
What do you think? Do our actions in games tell us anything about ourselves, morally? Does it depend on the game and the actions? Am I just overly sentimental when I worry about the poor settlers in the Fallout Wasteland, who carry all their possessions on a two-headed cow….I mean, Brahmin?